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El Paso Times

Drawing Race-Based Lines Is Problematic

By John Manza

March 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002
El Paso Times. All Rights Reserved.

My wife was at the Fort Bliss Hospital recently when she faced the inevitable bureaucratic question from a medical clerk: "What racial or ethnic group do you belong to?" Then, seeing my wife's olive-colored skin, she continued, "Should I list you as Hispanic?" My wife replied that she is not Hispanic, rather that she is Italian.

The clerk scanned her form for a suitable match, but was stumped. Finally, in desperation the clerk decided to check the box listed as "other."

My wife's experience says a lot about the problem of racial and ethnic classification. Such race-based classifications are irrelevant, clearly subjective, and morally indefensible.

Unfortunately, our government classifies the races and promotes the differences among them. One example is the state-sponsored recognition of selected ethnic groups through race-based awareness celebrations and heritage months. The U.S. government recognizes four such occasions: Black History, Hispanic Heritage, Asian-Pacific Heritage, and Native American Heritage months. The government defends these celebrations as necessary to recognize the contributions of minorities and "people of color."

Determining status by skin color is highly problematic. Just look at the methods that the U.S. government employs to define "Hispanics." They are identified by geographic area of the world their ancestors came from, the language they speak and by the color of their skin. The geographic list includes Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Central and South America and Spain. Government Web sites state there is a need to break out the Hispanic population because, unlike the "Caucasian/White" majority, they are prone to discrimination because they have darker skin color and speak Spanish.

This is foolish when one considers that the immigrant from Sicily or Greece, who is as dark skinned as many "people of color," is listed as White/Caucasian. Why? Because of arbitrary geographic boundaries we have drawn to define races.

The deeper one looks, the more absurd the policy becomes. There are millions of people in Argentina and Chile who are of German descent. Many have light complexions, blond hair and blue eyes, but they come from South America. Are they Hispanic? Many of those who emigrate from Argentina or Chile do not consider themselves Hispanic and list themselves instead as Caucasian.

And what about those from the Indian sub-continent and from the Middle East? Are they people of color? Should we care?

Many people point out that some groups have been discriminated against and therefore deserve special recognition. Where, then, is Jewish History Month? Have not Jews suffered enormous discrimination and even faced racial extermination?

I say it is time to stop classifying Americans according to race. We are not celebrating diversity when we lump people together into racial groups. Our people come in many shades, speak many languages, and believe in many religions. Our strength is our ability to bring these diverse groups together. Yes, we can be proud of our diverse ethnic heritage, but we must first be Americans.

Perhaps the hospital clerk was right. We Americans don't fit into neat racial groups. Maybe we should all just check the "other" block.

Maj. John Manza, who is stationed at Fort Bliss, writes often for the El Paso Times. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

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